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A proposed Barista Creed
A proposed Barista Creed
Posted June 24, 2006 8:50pm
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Click for larger image
Illy Espresso
Shot of Illy, progressing.

See the picture to the right? That's pulled with Ily coffee. From a can. Who knows how old the coffee is. But it looks good, and I can tell you, tasted very good.

I've been ruminating a theory on what makes a craftsman Barista. It's something I've been talking to barista champions about, and something I've been talking to unsung hero type line baristas about as well.

It's based on what I think should be the professional Barista's creed: Any Coffee, Any Machine, Any Grinder

Behind the creed is the thought that a true artisan Barista knows the act, the actions, the process, if you will, of espresso so well, they can literally step up to any competent machine / grinder / coffee combination and within a few pulls, pull a top shelf shot... or at least near the best that combination has to offer.

I'm surprised a bit at the resistance to it, and the quarters it comes from. I thought, for instance, my Scandinavian friends in the biz would be fully on board with this concept, but some have argued against it. Ditto for at least one UK Barista I know (though he has said he's going to give it some thought ;). I knew some of my American friends would be against it, especially the ones who are just so tuned to their machine, their blend, their grinder that they don't like much going away from those combinations.

I'm still trying to find words for this concept, and this evening, an example came to mind. I was talking to Paul Bassett about this the other day and gave as an example "well, what are you going to get if you step up to a machine that's pouring out the brewing water much hotter than the bean allows for?" For some reason, the answer came to me right away.

"So we're talking a darker roast, one that you may think needs something in the low or mid 90s (Celsius), right?"

"Yeah..." he said

"Okay... and let's assume the machine's boiler is just cranking out between 95 and 100C at the grouphead, depending on the cycle of the boiler".

"Okay... so then what do you do? Shot's going to be too bitter..."

I thought about it for a moment and said "okay, take control of your variables. Water's too hot... so, cool down the portafilter before using it. Maybe run it under some cold water briefly, or bath it in room temperature water for a second, dry it out, dose, tamp, lock and load, and let the portafilter leech off some of that temperature."

Bassett said knowingly, "good catch!".

The point behind this is, a Master Barista should be able to step up to a machine / grinder / coffee combo, and start making assessments even before the first shot pull. I don't expect the Barista to just know the brewing temperature. But if the Barista looks at the coffee... judges its age... checks the grind... smells the aroma off the whole bean vs. the ground bean... then he or she should have a good sense of the starting tools. Then set up the first test shot. Running too fast? Too slow? Too blond? Too dark? All indicators of issues - not just with grind or dose, but age and temperatures.

Make adjustments. Think outside the box. After the first or second shot pull, the Master Barista should have a sense of what it will take to dramatically improve the shot. Don't blame the equipment, work with the limitations - turn a disadvantage into an advantage. Dose up, dose down, get out of your normal rhythm because you have enough knowledge about the process to fix the issues.... or at least fix them to the best of your ability.

I have said a lot in the past "total robot - how cool!" when talking about Barista competitions. That was heady praise I'd give to a Barista who just flows, with the Barista actions being automatic, while they talk with the Emcee or judges. I'm not so sure any more that's good praise... it could be... if the Barista is in their natural element, and if any problems crop up, they just instinctively know how to deal with it. That's the good robot.

In competitions though, I've seen plenty "robots" who, once something goes wrong, just fall apart. I've seen others who, once they know they're down to the last two minutes of a competition, rush things and start screwing up.

Before I go any further, I really need to note - I have the utmost respect for every single Barista that competes. I admire the heck out of them. This is not a criticism of them per se - I almost don't want to write the above and what I'm about to write below.

The thing is, I'd rather take the Barista who is just a natural at the task any day over someone who studies a routine and gets it down pat. I'd rather be the former than the latter. But the former takes years and years of practice and exploration and discovery to really get to that level. It comes when you have a complete knowledge not only of how your coffee, your grinder, and your machine work, but how other grinders, other machines, other coffees can work. It requires variety.

Hence the (proposed) creed: any machine, any grinder, any coffee. A work in progress.

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